Hunton Law

Legal Counsel for Nonprofit & Tax-Exempt Organizations

Legal Counsel for Nonprofits, Foundations & Social Enterprises

Impact Law Forum at

How might we as lawyers use human-centered design to improve the legal profession? This was the topic of the April 23rd meeting of Impact Law Forum at’s San Francisco office.

Social impact attorneys, legal professionals, and law students gathered to meet one another and hear from Sean Hewens,’s Knowledge Manager and In-House Counsel. Sean led a discussion about ways that lawyers can more closely integrate design thinking and the legal profession. He began by defining the terms “design” and “human-centered design,” then offered a series of thought-provoking questions to engage the audience in thinking about the lawyer role in alternative and nontraditional ways. Sean wove in his own experiences as a police misconduct investigator, corporate attorney, graphic design student, nonprofit and social enterprise founder, and his current position, where he oversees’s mission to spread human-centered design throughout the social sector.

How can we communicate better with clients and other non-attorneys? In Sean’s view, by applying a few principles of design. With humor, Sean offered the following 6 design principles: (1) Never use Times New Roman; (2) Use one space between sentences, not two; (3) Learn the creative suite; (4) Use Keynote instead of PowerPoint; (5) Be visual, in preparing written materials and in thinking about legal challenges; (6) You’re already smart, so be creative too. He supplemented each design principle with an explanation of why it matters. The overall take-away: lawyers have a lot to gain – better relationships, clearer communications, improved public perception – by moving beyond the way things have always been done.

How can we provide better legal services to our social sector clients? By applying the human-centered design process to delivering legal advice, building a law practice, understanding our client’s individual problems and educating ourselves on social sector problems at scale. According to IDEO, “human-centered design is a process that begins with gaining deep empathy for a customer’s needs, hopes, and aspirations for the future. Human-centered design helps us create innovation that is rooted in people and the broader context that shapes their daily lives.” To learn more about HCD, check out HCD Connect. Sean pointed out that HCD works particularly well when applied to social sector problems, as shown by’s projects in the areas of health, gender, sanitation, water, agriculture, and finance. The intersection of law, HCD, and social sector problems presents a rich opportunity for significant positive impact.

How can we be more than just lawyers? There are a variety of ways in which lawyers can break out of the traditional mold of legal thinking and be more than just a lawyer. A great starting point is to build upon a skill that we all share – the ability to problem solve. Another way to be more than just a lawyer is to work with other disciplines and intentionally put ourselves on projects, teams, and engagements with people from other professions and backgrounds (being mindful of the rules regarding the unauthorized practice of law, fee splitting, referrals, etc.). Another idea is to stay on the edge of technological innovation and find ways to use new technology to improve legal services, communication, and delivery.

How can we find the opportunities for design and HCD? Start looking for ways to learn design and HCD, and the opportunities will come. Enroll in a design course at a local college or university, or read HCD Toolkit. Sean noted that balancing a new experience, such as taking a design course, with the daily demands and obligations of a ‘lawyer day job’ is a healthy challenge. It encourages us do a better job of problem solving with both sides of our brains.

How can we fail, and then talk about our failures? In the HCD process, it’s good to fail fast and fail early. It’s almost a requirement when design prototyping and testing. In the legal profession, failure can mean malpractice, disappointed clients, getting fired – none of which we want to happen, let alone talk about openly. Similar to the legal profession, the social sector has not been good at talking about or acknowledging failure when it happens. It was a difficult concept for the audience to take in, but Sean pushed us to think of ways lawyers can innovate (even if it means failing) without the obvious risks of malpractice liability, losing good clients, and other very real concerns.

By the end of his talk, Sean had raised numerous questions, some quite open-ended and difficult to answer. Impact Law Forum is exactly the venue where these types of questions can be asked and debated, openly and honestly. ILF invites you to attend a follow-on brainstorming session where we’ll tackle some of the questions Sean raised.